Journalist Nick Turse wrote an article today about how special operations forces (SOF) are not all they are cracked up to be. In general, I agree. Behind the hero worship of the public, gushing of politicians who need SOF to make them look good, and young men who are obsessed with the guns-and-MultiCam aspect of the job, there are some profound problems within the special operations community. While civilian authors such as Kevin Maurer, Sean Naylor, and Linda Robinson have articulated many of these deficiencies, Turse offers nothing more than a whiney and ultimately watered-down version of William Lind’s 2012, and far superior critique of American special operations.
Turse tears into American special operations, claiming that they are not nearly as successful as people think they are at accomplishing their missions. However, Turse never defines success, whether it is success in his personal opinion or the official policy statements of the U.S. government and special operations command. Sean Naylor, apparently Turse’s sole source for the article, is another journalist. I interviewed Naylor myself on Sunday about his new book on JSOC. While we discussed the shortcomings of JSOC, I doubt if Naylor would agree with Turse’s viewpoints. Naylor is even quoted in the article saying, “The vast majority of the decisions [about operations and the war in general] were not being made by Army Special Forces soldiers.”
Special operations troops need to own their failures, accept them as fact, conduct appropriate after-action reviews, and always improve their performance. Yes, even SOF bears much of the burden for America recently fighting two failed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they are not the only ones shouldering that burden. The United States government does not have special operations units operating in a vacuum. Everyone gets a say in SOF operations, from the CIA to the State Department to the enemy themselves. Turse seems to think that SOF works in a unilateral environment, but even then, he can’t put his finger on exactly what SOF is doing wrong.
I would agree that the United States military, to include special operations forces, generally does a poor job of training foreign militaries. The reason for this is primarily that American soldiers attempt to graph U.S. military doctrine right on top of foreign cultures and societies. This cookie-cutter approach is uncreative and is devoid of any serious cultural study. Former Rhodesian Selous Scout Tim Bax and I talked about this at length in a podcast a few months ago.
Turse critiques Special Forces for the failed program to train Syrians in Jordan and Turkey. What he does not seem to get is that those Green Berets were working under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency, who were exercising their covert-action authorities, and ultimately taking their marching orders from the executive office. Politicians want to be perceived as if they are doing something, so they issue directives to their bureaucrats, who in turn cut orders to Special Forces soldiers. In other words, shit rolls down hill. The Green Berets running these programs knew they were broken beyond all repair, and in some cases resigned themselves to the fact that they had to make it look like they were trying their best at what they knew was a hopeless endeavor.
The application of special operations forces is an arm of policymaking, and if those policies are flawed from the beginning, if they are created to suit political realities in Washington D.C. rather than the boots-on-the-ground realities in Syria, then of course our Green Berets suck at their job. They were never given the chance to succeed in the first place.
Other criticisms are simply childish, and the author of the article is crassly pandering to the readers of Salon, such as complaining that most SOF soldiers are white men. You know, those “muscled-up, high-octane operators” that Turse refers to. Maybe we could get some more diversity in SOF, but I don’t think Salon’s readers have any interest in joining the military.
Turse really goes for the cheap heat when he blames SOF for creating ISIS. You know how this narrative goes: The JSOC Task Force targeted al-Qaeda cells in Iraq but was unable to completely defeat them, so they morphed into the Islamic State. ISIS actually grew out of the Baath party hold-outs and the Islamic State of Iraq, not al-Qaeda in Iraq, but again, let’s not get caught up in actual details which could ruin our moralizing about complicated global affairs. We’ve got a Salon article to write here, and we’ve gotta keep that narrative tight, tight, tight!
So, long story short, if SOF had not targeted terrorists in Iraq in the first place, then ISIS would never have existed. Just like if the United States had not fought in World War I, which set the conditions for World War II, then we never would have had the Nazis! Because these liberal, hand-wringing journalists are oracles of the future, who foresee all of these things before the rest of us. Certainly they are not simply predicting what has already happened and then massaging the facts to suit their story.
Good lord, let me help you here, Nick. If you are going to make this argument, then you argue that it was the removal of Saddam Hussein that left a power vacuum, which was eventually filled by ISIS. This also assumes that we all could have predicted the 2011 Syrian Civil War in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which actually did lead to the rise of ISIS. But let’s take this one step at a time.
So in short, we suck. America sucks. We also bombed Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan. America blew up the Chinese embassy in Belgrade accidentally back in 1999, but we can all laugh about that one. So on behalf of special operations, I’m sorry Turse, but I’m not as sorry as you.
(Featured image courtesy of billmoyers.com)